Pollution on tap in Gaza

People in Gaza rely on water from public filling stations (Youssef Abu Watfa - APA Images)

Fedaa al-Qedra

The Electronic Intifada  /  March 14, 2022

Abu al-Ata is constantly waiting for water.

She often keeps the faucets open so that she will be able to hear the sound of liquid flowing through them. Sometimes she stays awake all night, listening.

Water arrives at irregular intervals in her home. And when water does arrive, it is invariably of poor quality.

“The water is so salty,” said Abu al-Ata, a resident of Deir al-Balah refugee camp in central Gaza. “It’s like it comes straight from the sea. It damages our skin and hair.”

After a rash appeared on her daughter’s skin, she was advised to use bottled water while washing.

Costing around 60 cents per liter, bottled water is unaffordable for most people in Gaza, where poverty and unemployment are widespread. Bottled water has increased in price over recent months – along with food and drinks generally.

‘Complete control’

Access to water is among the many issues examined by Amnesty International in its recently published report documenting how Israel runs an apartheid system.

The report states that “Israel has consolidated complete control of all water resources and water-related infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, including the coastal aquifer, which is the only freshwater resource in Gaza.”

Due to over-extraction and pollution, more than 95 percent of water from the coastal aquifer is unfit for human consumption.

No transfer of water from the occupied West Bank to Gaza is allowed by Israel, the Amnesty report adds.

Israel, the occupying power, charges hefty sums to supply Gaza with water. The annual bill paid to Israel is around $20 million.

Importing from Israel is necessary, according to Mazen al-Banna, a senior Gaza-based representative of the Palestinian Water Authority. The coastal aquifer does not yield enough water to meet the needs of farmers, factories and households.

“We live in a narrow geographical area,” al-Banna said. “This means that water resources are limited.”

Rather than demand that Israel ensures all Palestinians have access to clean water, some high-ranking diplomats have actually praised Israel’s inherently racist policies.

In November last year, the UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland noted that Israel had taken steps towards selling an additional 5 million cubic meters of water to Gaza per year. That, according to Wennesland, was a “positive development.”

Unaffordable

Not all diplomats share Wennesland’s habit of sugarcoating the occupation.

In September, Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, presented a report which criticized Israel’s destruction of Palestinian infrastucture. The report stated that around 290 water and sanitation facilities were destroyed or damaged by Israel when it attacked Gaza in May.

Bachelet’s report observed that safe drinking water has become “virtually unaffordable” in Gaza, where poverty and unemployment are widespread.

Some 20,000 families do not have enough money to buy clean water. Those families rely, according to Bachelet’s report, on “water from public filling points or unsafe tap water, with high risk of waterborne diseases, particularly among children under five.”

The water from Muhammad al-Zaanin’s faucets is usually colored gray or yellow.

“We just use tap water for cleaning and bathing,” said Al-Zaanin, who lives in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza. “The water doesn’t seem suitable for anything but we have no choice. When my kids take a shower, they complain that their eyes get sore and red. Their hair tends to be very dry and they need moisturizers for their skin.”

Polluted water causes damage. Al-Zaanin recently had to change taps and siphons in his bathroom because they were clogged with rust and lime.

“It was very expensive,” he said. He also noted that the water is too dirty even for the plants and fruit trees in his garden.

The problems of access to water have been compounded by the full blockade which Israel has imposed on Gaza for more than 15 years. One consequence of the siege is that Gaza frequently encounters power outages.

Abed Omar is a father of five living in Beach refugee camp, Gaza City. The pump which he uses to fill containers with water runs on electricity.

In the winter, his family usually has access to water for five hours per day. But during summertime, they tend to only have water once every two or three days.

“When we don’t have water and electricity at the same time, we can’t fill our containers,” he said. “So we have no water for days at a time. It is so difficult.”

Fedaa al-Qedra is a journalist in Gaza